Every year in Ireland, thousands of people do the Newgrange lottery. Entry is by application form, with the draw made in October by local schoolchildren. And the prize? The lucky winners are invited to a bleak, wintry field in the middle of County Meath on the longest night of the year, to huddle into a dank and claustrophobic tunnel and wait for the sun to come up.
It’s not just any old field, though, but part of Brú na Boinne, one of Europe’s most important archeological sites. A slow bend in the River Boyne cradles this extraordinary ritual landscape of some forty Neolithic mounds, which served not only as graves but also as spiritual and ceremonial meeting places for the locals, five thousand years ago.
The tunnel belongs to the most famous passage mound, Newgrange, which stretches over 273ft in diameter, weighs 200,000 tons in total and is likely to have taken forty years to build. The lottery winners get to experience the annual astronomical event for which the tomb’s passage was precisely and ingeniously designed: through a roofbox over the entrance, the first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice shine unerringly into the burial chamber in the heart of the mound, 65ft away at the end of the passage.
Not everyone gets to win the lottery, of course, so throughout the year as part of an entertaining guided tour of the mound, visitors are shown an electrically powered simulation of the solstice dawn in the central chamber. Once you’ve taken the tour and seen the impressive visitor centre, the perfect complement is to drive 19 miles west to the Loughcrew Cairns, a group of thirty similar mounds that are largely unexcavated. Here, you borrow a torch and the key to the main passage tomb, Cairn T, and you’ll almost certainly have the place to yourself. With views of up to sixteen counties on a clear day, you can let your imagination run wild in an unspoilt and enigmatic landscape.
The Brú na Boinne visitor centre (http://www.heritageireland.ie) is 10km southwest of Drogheda in Co. Meath. The Loughcrew Cairns, near Oldcastle, are accessible only with your own transport – pick up the key for Cairn T from the coffee shop at Loughcrew Gardens (http://www.loughcrew.com).